Nature & Culture: Histories of Heritage Interpretation in North America


MSL2230H

In North America, heritage interpretation is a professional field with complex histories, which have significant impacts on the current practices. This course delves deep into these histories to trace the foundations of heritage interpretation as a field of practice, with its values and methods. More specifically, we start our journey in the late decades of the 19th century, when American and Canadian governments formed national parks, which had severe implications for Indigenous communities. The formation of settler states resulted in a series of cultural institutions – national parks, historic houses, living history museums – which served the purpose of preserving the national past through nature and culture. Other large socio-political forces, industrialization, urbanization, migration, also contributed to the development of these institutions. Meanwhile, local and community needs further shaped these new (at the time) cultural spaces. As these cultural institutions were finding their place within the North American landscape, a new professional field was being shaped: heritage interpretation.

This course uses a thematic and chronological approach to map out the field of heritage interpretation and tease out the following: the types of cultural institutions involved in preserving the nature and culture of the past; the professionalization mechanisms of these institutions (e.g. organizations, manuals); the resulting practices. Like any historical take on a field, this course will focus on the notions of change and relevance, looking at pivotal moments (e.g. the introduction of the Multicultural Act) and case studies (e.g. historical Williamsburg’s re-evaluation of enslaved communities histories), and aiming to balance large scale policy interventions with grassroots community initiatives.

The course will be delivered through a hybrid method, combining lecturettes, seminar-style discussions, and mini-workshops. Learners in this course will read a variety of resources, including books, journal articles, professional publications, and grey literature.

While the focus of this course is on the North American context, learners will be able to apply methods and frameworks from this course to other models outside of North America.